I sat in the Maine Medical Center hospital room at the foot of her bed while Jackie, my closest friend for nearly 40 years, quietly passed away. As with everything else she did in her life, it was accomplished with dignity and little fanfare. It was such a smooth transition that I just sat there for awhile, thinking I had to be mistaken, but when I asked a nurse to come in, she said the obvious, and my friend was gone forever.
We were high school English teachers together in the 1970’s and 1980’s, and we were definitely products of the ’60’s. We lived large, or at least as large as our paychecks would allow. We took kids to Paris and sat at a café on the banks of the Seine sipping wine. She pointed out how wonderfully French children behaved and avowed it was because their mothers allowed them a small glass of wine before their afternoon naps.
We went into a gay bar by mistake in Amsterdam in the ’70’s, looking for potato chips. It was my first experience into that foreign land; we didn’t stay too long. But we did strike up a conversation with two really super guys who were artists and they sketched our pictures on the backs of napkins. We did find the chips, by the way.
We used to hang out with another English teacher, Kim, at Deanie’s house (our school librarian) on the occasional Friday afternoon, and we’d sit on the rug, have a couple of drinks, and try to straighten out the problems of the world.
But here’s the real problem: there was no Plan B. We just went to school every day, sick or well, rain or shine, taught with quite a bit of finesse, and by the ’80’s looked forward to eventual retirement. We drifted apart geographically, as friends often do. Deanie moved down South and is now deceased, Kim quit teaching and worked for a large corporation a few hours away, Jackie opened a cats-only boarding facility.
And still there was no Plan B. Of course, we’d heard somewhere about mortality, but it wasn’t high on the radar. We had good retirements, kept traveling to Europe and beyond, and met in both sad times (funerals) and happy times (my retirement party). But I have to say, it surprised the hell out of me when Jackie left for good. I didn’t imagine a future without her in it, and I am having an extremely difficult time adjusting to this new game.
Bottom line: real friends are precious, more precious than the Hope Diamond or the Mona Lisa or the Taj Mahal. Casual friends will always be there for you when times are good, but true friends will be there when it’s as awful as it can get. I wish I had treasured her friendship even more than I did.